The shrimp fried rice doesn't taste Chinese. And the fried whole mojarra comes with tartar sauce instead of ginger and scallions. 888 Chinese Restaurant, located next to the recently renovated Gulfgate Center, seems to be putting a Mexican-American spin on Chinese food for the predominantly Hispanic eastside neighborhood. Some of it tastes pretty good.
Our young Mexican-American waitress recommended the whole fried fish. Mojarra is a tropical fish eaten mostly in Latin America; here, it's sometimes called yellowfin perch or Mayan cichlid. Mojarra has a mild flavor, which is somewhat obscured in this case because the fish has been overcooked until it's chewy and dry. But the shrimp fried rice is excellent. It has a nutty taste and texture, which means the grains of rice were sautéed in oil with the other ingredients first, and then cooked -- the method we use to make Spanish rice in Texas. Chinese fried rice, on the other hand, is cold steamed rice that's stir-fried with other ingredients.
Our appetizer is a plate of spicy chicken wings that could have come direct from Buffalo. The other entrée we sample is the mango chicken in garlic sauce. It was easily the best thing I've tried on 888's menu. Big cubes of mango balance the chile and garlic beautifully. It's a tropical-tasting dish that seems only vaguely Chinese.
The food at 888 reminds me of the Cuban-Chinese restaurants in New York, started by Chinese-restaurant families who relocated from Havana to New York when Castro took over. They brought along their odd combination menus, with Cuban dishes on one side and Chinese specialties on the other. There wasn't any conscious effort to fuse Cuban food with Chinese food in these places. But over time, the plantains started migrating onto the plate with the lo mein.
Something similar has happened in Houston. Chinese restaurants here have borrowed from the indigenous Mexican and Cajun styles to create a Sino-Texan cuisine. Everybody knows that benjy's in the Village and Rickshaw on Westheimer serve Asian-Texan fusion dishes. But few recall that the Sino-Tex style premiered in the 1970s when pioneers such as Hong Kong-born Daniel Wong started serving Chinese food with Cajun and Hispanic twists. As the chef at Ming Palace in River Oaks, Wong was Houston's most famous Chinese chef for more than a decade. His Cajun-Chinese seafood gumbo was a sensation.
Wong had a restaurant in Richmond for a while, and then he returned to China with health problems. Today, the old master of Houston Chinese chefs runs a little eatery on Bissonnet called Daniel Wong's Kitchen.
Some of Wong's cross-cultural dishes have lost their zing over the years. His fiesta beef is a confused jumble of not-very-interesting Chinese and Mexican flavors. And his famous seafood gumbo, made with tiny shrimp and too much thickener, tastes terrible these days, if you ask me.
But Wong still has a few Sino-Tex hits on the menu. The Rio Grande Valley beef, made with fresh Texas citrus, is the best version of the classic Chinese dish "orange beef" that I've ever tasted. The traditional version uses strips of dried orange peel, but Wong departs from that orthodoxy by tossing chunks of juicy orange and quarter-sized pieces of fresh peel in with the beef and chiles.
The last time I visited Daniel Wong's Kitchen was around noon on a Sunday. A group of septuagenarians stopped by in their church duds and sat down for lunch. One of the women had obviously never been to Daniel Wong's, and that gave a few of the gentlemen a chance to crack wise.
"Try the road kill pork," one of them advised the lady. "It's the best thing on the menu."
"Road kill pork?" she said with widened eyes.
"They pick it up off 288, mostly," said the wise guy in the wide tie.
"The road kill chicken is good, too," his eager accomplice chimed in. "They get that on 610."
My daughter Julia and I both smiled as the lady at the next table was let in on the joke. Julia was eating the road kill chicken at that very moment. "Road kill pork" is a goofy nickname for a dish Wong invented for one of his garlic-crazy customers. The pork is stir-fried with big slices of garlic and ginger along with some onions in a tangy sauce. Road kill chicken was added to the menu later and cooked the same way. And Wong doesn't fool around with the garlic and ginger.
"What's this, Dad?" Julia asked, putting a round sauce-covered object on my plate.
"That's a slice of water chestnut," I said.
"You can have it," she replied with an impish grin. From the look on her face I could tell something was up, but I put the thing in my mouth and chewed. What had looked like water chestnut turned out to be a huge slice of ginger. Julia got a laugh out of it and then pointed out that there were several more slices left on her plate.
In 1984, when the low-fat craze was in full swing, chef Wong unveiled a "healthy food" Chinese menu with reduced fats. To that end, he introduced several turkey dishes. To this day, Daniel Wong's is one of the only Chinese restaurants where I've ever seen turkey served.
The venerable chef Wong is no longer at the top of his game, but many Houstonians, including the old-timers at the next table, still count his eccentric dishes among the most interesting Chinese food in Houston.
If the Rio Grande Valley beef at Daniel Wong's Kitchen gets its flavor from whole oranges, then the orange beef at 888 Chinese Restaurant must get its flavor from a whole jar of marmalade. It's sickeningly sweet, and among the worst versions of the dish I've ever had. Another beef dish, shredded beef with string beans, is pretty good if you like string beans. We saw a young Hispanic woman snapping the green beans when we walked in, so we knew they were fresh. When the order was delivered to our table, it looked more like a vegetable dish than a beef dish. We ate all the beef and about half of the beans.
The house special lo mein is a big disappointment. It's supposed to have chicken, shrimp and pork in it but is actually a big plate of noodles with very little flavoring, which led me to ignore the less expensive lo mein dishes. The dumplings and egg rolls seem like the standard frozen variety.
888 is a big square room with booths down both sides, tables in the middle and two television sets high on the wall at one end. The clientele seems about equal parts Anglo and Hispanic, as is the neighborhood. Alison Cook, the restaurant critic at the Houston Chronicle, lives on the east side. She gave 888 a good review, but she admitted that she was prejudiced in favor of any Chinese restaurant located so conveniently close to her house. I suppose I need to confess that I have a similar soft spot for Daniel Wong's Kitchen, which is located in my little corner of 610.
888 and Daniel Wong's Kitchen seem strangely connected, in my mind. The two outposts of Texas-Chinese food sit like bookends just inside the Loop on opposite corners of the inner city, 888 on the southeast and Daniel Wong's on the southwest. Neither restaurant offers the kind of stellar straight-from-the-old-country Chinese food that makes eating in the new Chinatown on outer Bellaire so exciting. "Americanized" Chinese food, like chow mein and sweet-and-sour pork, has long been out of fashion. But the "Houstonized" Chinese food you'll find at these two places is something else entirely.
And sometimes, when you come home from work exhausted, or you don't have time for an excursion, a convenient, though less than perfect, Chinese restaurant with a few reliable dishes comes in handy. Both of these neighborhood favorites fill the bill -- which one you'll like better probably depends on where you live.
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